‘Lost’ cities always capture the attention whether they are real or fictional like the city of Atlantis. One of America’s greatest real lost cities is Cahokia, a huge, bustling location that was larger than London or Paris at its peak in the 11th century. At that time, its population was approximately 30,000 which made it the largest North American city north of Mexico.
Today, Cahokia Mounds remains and is one of only eight World Heritage sites in the United States. However, it was once the location of a thriving city until its population completely disappeared by the end of the 14th century. What was Cahokia and what happened to it?
The North American Metropolis
Cahokia was a large North American settlement located in southern Illinois around eight miles from modern-day St. Louis. Although the exact date of its formation is unknown, word spread in the late 10th century AD throughout the southeast, and thousands of people visited for feasts and rituals. A number of these visitors were impressed by what they saw and elected to stay. It is important to learn more about the city as it provides a very different insight into the way Native Americans lived in the pre-Columbian era. Even today, the myth of the ‘noble savage’ is prevalent as many people still view American Indians of the age as backward individuals that needed to be civilized. In reality, cities like Cahokia show that Native Americans were extremely advanced.
Cahokia was a cosmopolitan and sophisticated city by the standards of the age. It was inhabited by a diverse range of peoples including the Ofo, the Choctaw, the Pensacola and the Natchez. According to archaeologists that conducted strontium tests on the teeth of buried remains, approximately one-third of them were not from Cahokia.
A Thriving City
Cahokia was a departure from the usual practice of building a town or city near sources of food and water and close to trade routes. The area was an excellent source of deer, timber and of course, fish from the Mississippi River but the land was extremely prone to flooding. Archaeologists now believe that Cahokia was originally built as a kind of pilgrimage city where people from the rest of the Mississippi region would visit for religious events. Up until the beginning of the 11th century, Cahokia was probably a popular meeting point, but suddenly, it became a focal point as an increasing number of people settled there. There is a suggestion that settlers were inspired by a sighting of Halley’s Comet in 989. They created ceremonial mounds at the site, and many of them line up with the position of the sun during the winter solstice.
It was unquestionably a planned city as whoever created it successfully predicted that if they built it, people would come. When it was completed, Cahokia was around nine square miles in area and the Mississippians built around 120 earthen mounds in total. Experts estimated that around 55 million cubic feet of mud were dug up over the course of a few decades to create all the mounds. The largest mound in the city, known as the Monk’s Mound, was home to Cahokia’s largest building and city center.
The political and spiritual leaders of the city met there in a structure surrounded by a timber palisade that is two miles in circumference. The Monk’s Mound towered some 30 meters above a giant central plaza and had a total of three ascending levels. A person standing at the highest level could be heard across the entire Grand Plaza. The giant mound was created next to a circle of huge timber poles that is sometimes dubbed ‘Woodhenge.’
Most of the city’s inhabitants lived in homes with one room; these residences were around 15 feet long and 12 feet wide. The walls were constructed with wooden posts covered in mats along with a thatched roof. While Cahokia only remained as a major center for a relatively brief period, its cultural impact was far reaching.
Cahokia’s Cultural Impact
Researchers in Wisconsin have found evidence of pottery and housing created in the Cahokia style. Archaeologists started excavating the area in 1961 and have uncovered an array of interesting artifacts including ceramic and stone figurines. The city was home to a large number of artisans that supplied chieftains and the elites with their work. It was likely that the chieftains of the city used figurines and other items to spread the word about their beliefs to nearby communities.
As is the case with most pre-Columbian centers, ritual sacrifice was practiced. Archaeologists have found evidence in the form of mass graves where hundreds of young men and women were buried. The remains suggest some of the victims were strangled while others bled to death. Excavators found the skeletons of four decapitated men with their hands also cut off. Yet another grave housed men who had probably been beaten to death with clubs.
It is probable that the victims were all residents of the city because there is no evidence that Cahokia was at war with other tribes. In other Native American sites, archaeologists found a huge number of arrowheads left behind by war, but there are hardly any at Cahokia. In other words, if you lived in the city, the greatest threat to you was its chieftains and not outsiders. Between 1175 and 1275, the city was rebuilt four times which suggests a threat from local or outside sources.
Why Did Cahokia’s Population Disappear?
This is a question that archaeologists cannot find a definitive answer to. Its population probably reached its highest level by the beginning of the 12th century, but the city was practically uninhabited by the middle of the 14th century. It is perhaps noteworthy that there are no mentions of Cahokia in the folklore and oral histories of Native Americans. Clearly, something happened there that the Native Americans would rather forget.
Archaeologists have come up with specific eras for the development of the city according to the orientation of the buildings. Houses were organized into courtyard patterns from 1050-1100 (Lohmann Phase). During the 12th century, also known as the Stirling Phase, houses were built in a strict grid pattern with homes and mounds oriented in a north-south direction. The Moorhead Phase was the last phase and occurred from the beginning of the 13th century until 1350. It involved a return to the courtyard patterns of the 11th century.
It seems as if these phases were due to social change rather than merely being fads. Originally, chieftains and the elites coerced the city’s residents into building the mounds they sat on and repaid them with little more than platitudes and the occasional large feast. Eventually, the population of Cahokia probably grew tired of this state of affairs, and the result was a period of civil unrest.
This is clear because, during the 12th century, the giant wooden palisade was built around the Monk’s Mound; this served as a barrier between the elite and the rest of the city. The angry residents stopped helping the elites, and the Grand Plaza soon fell into disrepair. By the 14th century, at least half of the residents left the city, and everyone else moved into their own small communities.
It is also likely that the residents rebelled against the notion that a handful of elites could choose victims for human sacrifice. Archaeologists note a significant downturn in sacrifices after the decline of the Grand Plaza. It is also possible that a succession of droughts badly affected the region and the city was unable to support such a huge population.
Although Cahokia was abandoned, the city made a lasting impression on the surrounding landscape. The empty courtyards of the city were eventually inhabited by other Native American tribes, and European settlers built farms and settlements over them. The remaining Cahokia Mounds still inspire wonder among tourists and it became a UNESCO World Heritage Site in 1982.
There is also a possibility that the U.S. National Park Service will take the 2.2-acre site under its wing. Federal intervention would greatly increase the level of tourism to the 72 mounds. At present, around 250,000 people visit the Cahokia Mounds each year.
Click to WATCH: This Forgotten American City Was Home To Thousands In The 11th Century